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Women’s History Month: Celebrating Black Designers in Fashion

Long before fashion was a "thing" in the African American community slaves were making garments for their owners. As many obtained their freedom, metropolises became the place to obtain cutting-edge designs from talented African American clothing designers. Many may not know it, but New Orleans was actually the fashion mecca for Black businesses to design, make and sell their clothing long before New York was an option. In honor of National Women's History Month we honor the Black women of the fashion world from both then and now that have broken molds and opened doors for the designers and trends of today.



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 Elizabeth Keckly

black designers fashion   Supporting herself and her family through her dressmaking and design skills, Keckly bought her freedom and moved to Washington D.C. She was famous for the inaugural gown she designed for Mary Todd Lincoln, wife to then president Abraham Lincoln. This dress can be viewed today at the Smithsonian Institute in D.C. The wives of Robert E. Lee, Stephen Douglas, and Jefferson Davis were also clients of Elizabeth Keckly. A respected independent business woman, she also worked towards the abolition of slavery through her well-connected white clients.


Zelda Wynn Valdes

black designers fashion       Zelda Wynn Valdes opened her own shop on Broadway in New York in 1948. She was known for her sexy hip-hugging styles and numbered among her clientele many of the notable black women of that era including Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald and Gladys Knight. Little known to many, her work even caught the eye of Hugh Hefner, who commissioned her  to design the original and most popularly known costumes for the Playboy bunnies. She also helped found the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organization of black designers.


Ann Lowe

black designers fashion   Born in Alabama in 1899, Ann Lowe was privileged to move to New York at the age of 16. She attended design school and eventually opened a shop on Madison Avenue. Her clients included members of the Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, and Rockefeller families. She made more than 1,000 dresses per year for clients and sold her designs in Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin. In 1953, Lowe designed the dresses for the mother of the bride and the bridal dress for the wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy, one of the most photographed events in history. It was unfortunate, however, that Lowe did not receive the credit she deserved for these famous gowns.                      
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The infamous gown worn by Miss Kennedy.




Tracy Reese

black designers fashion   Tracy Reese designs are noted for their femininity and retro-influenced style; the textiles themselves make use of bright colors, elaborate graphic patterns, and a playful use of bohemian touches. With a namesake label and variety—ranging from home and shoes to nail polish and hosiery—the brand has captured great commercial success and recognition across many categories. Clothing and home fashions by Tracy Reese's design lines are carried by retailers such as Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, Modcloth, and Nordstrom. Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama her designs have received national attention recently.      

Monif Clarke

black designers fashion   Awarded “Best Plus Size Fashion Designer” by Full Figure Fashion Week, “Best Plus Size Clothing Store” by City Search, “Best Store For Plus Size Evening Wear” by Time Out New York and featured in the October issue of Essence Magazine’s “Leaders Of The New School”, Monif C was conceived in 2005 by mother/daughter team Elaine and Monif Clarke to reaffirm every woman’s desire for an inspired life filled with luxury and unadulterated sexy appeal. A love of color, prints, and vintage details sprung from summers spent in Barbados visiting her family. Today as a plus size woman, Monif understands the need for a new perspective in the plus size market. Monif C. has been featured on Fox Business, NBC’s Today Show, ABC News, Barbara Walters’ the View, The Washington Post, Latina, Crain’s New York Business, Essence, Glamour, TLC’s What Not to Wear, Seventeen Magazine, Ebony, Jet and many more. The Monif C. collection is quintessentially the wardrobe for the young, contemporary, sexy plus size woman.

Laura Smalls

black designers fashion

  First lady Michelle Obama has made Laura Smalls somewhat of an overnight sensation. In spite of the overnight spike in her brand due to the national attention, Smalls is not new to the fashion industry. In 1976 she graduated from the Parsons School of Design, promptly sold a small spring collection to Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel — and then nothing. In the season that followed, Bloomingdale’s opted not to buy her subsequent collection, and a new buyer had replaced her contract at Bendel’s. “I couldn’t even get an appointment,” Smalls told the Huffington Post. Ironically enough, the year we celebrated our first Black president was the same year she began sketching again, and it didn't take long for first lady Michelle Obama to discover her and add Smalls to the list of American designers she frequently wears.       The history of fashion industry is full of important contributions from creative, talented Black female clothing designers. Black women have certainly made a most worthy contribution to the growth of the fashion industry and to the elegance of women’s wardrobes dating back to slavery and further back to ancient Africa. Given the history of fashion design for Black women our presence in today’s fashion industry is considerably low. However, we can change this by ensuring that Black female and male fashion designers receive our support as did Zelda Wynn Valdes from black stars such as Josephine Baker, and like FLOTUS Michelle Obama does with Tracy Reese, Laura Smalls and others.

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black designers fashion black designers fashion


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